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Napa Valley: Easy to Hate, But Not Hard to Love

28 Sep

Napa Valley SignThere are many reasons to hate Napa Valley: the perpetual traffic jam that is highway 29; Costco sized tasting rooms full-to-bursting with tipsy tourists elbowing each other on the way to the bar; insultingly high tasting fees. ($30 for one 1 oz. pour!? Not for me, thanks.) In fact, just last week, Steve Heimoff referred to the Valley as a “Disney-fied mecca” in one of his posts, echoing Randall Grahm’s sentiment in his new book Been Doon So Long in which he refers to Napa Valley as “the adult theme park.”

I can’t say that I disagree with these sentiments.  In fact, when I am asked by out of town guests to host them on a Napa Valley wine tour there is much internal groaning and dread on my part, but a funny thing happens when I get there, I am absolutely jaw-dropped by the beauty of the place.  Every single time.  A visit to Napa Valley can be enchanting whether it’s your first visit or your 51st —  if you choose to look at it with a glass half full mentality.  Here are a few classics you can learn to love again, promise:

Robert Mondavi Winery – Yep, I’m going there (literally and figuratively).  Why?  Because it’s extraordinarily gorgeous.  Whether it’s your first time or not, drinking in the view of the To Kalon vineyard topped by a piece of wedgewood blue sky through the archway at the front of Mondavi’s mission style complex is undeniably breathtaking.  This is the quintessential Napa Valley experience, for without Robert Mondavi the tasting room and perhaps Napa Valley as we know it may not exist today.  Instead of lamenting how big and crowded and corporate it’s all become, why not bring a sandwich and have an impromptu picnic here while you watch all the giddy tourists go by?  (Whether or not you taste the wine is completely up to you.)

Heitz Cellar – Among the most well-respected Cab producers in Napa Valley, Heitz’s low-key tasting room is an oasis of calm among the chaos of Highway 29.  Those who overlook this winery in favor of its flashier neighbors (and there are many) miss out on one of the most relaxed, laid-back tasting room experiences in the valley.  In addition to the usual suspects, Heitz also offers some unusual ones for tasting, Grignolino and Petite Verdot among them.  Did I mention it’s free?  Yes, you can taste some good, very good, even excellent wines here any day of the week without dropping a dime on the experience.  Who says you can’t get something for nothing?

Mumm Napa – With one of the most informative tours on the production of sparkling wine to be had for free and without an appointment, Mumm offers a very good opportunity to get a little winemaking education.  I have taken many guests here and each has remarked on how much they enjoyed this particular experience and how much they learned at Mumm.  Plus, a sparkling wine pit stop is a refreshing change of pace from the onslaught of big, brawny Cabs that inevitably fill a Napa Valley day.  Okay, the wine tchochkes in the gift shop and the Santana Brut are a little ridiculous, but they’ll quickly fade from memory after someone brings you a glass of bubbly — Mumm has no tasting bar, only table service — while you enjoy the picturesque vineyard view.

Silverado Trail – I have been to Napa Valley many times for no other purpose than to drive this road, which runs parallel to the much more crowded and much less scenic, Highway 29.  Built in 1852, it was the first permanent road to connect Napa to Calistoga to the north.  Today, there are more than 40 wineries along the Silverado Trail, but most are nestled discreetly into the lush oaks and pines that line the road or tucked into small hillsides, making this drive feel much more bucolic and relaxing than a slog along stark 29 to the west.  Here, you still see hand printed signs advertising “goats for sale” and the occasional entrepreuer selling homemade pine cone wreaths from the back of a truck on the side of the road.  Driving Silverado feels a little like the Napa Valley of so many years ago, the one many of us long for but find increasingly difficult to recognize.

There are many experiences in Napa Valley worth having again.  What’s chronicled here are perhaps the most obvious, which are often the most overlooked.  But, what about the others:  the obscure, the odd, the unique, the unexpected?  They’re out there, even in a place as overrun with tourism as Napa Valley.  It’s all about setting out to find them.

Thunder, Lightning, Elbling

17 Sep

lightningTwo things happened last week:  there was a thunderstorm in San Francisco, and I tasted 2008 Matthias Dostert Elbling Trocken Nitteler Leiterchen.  These two events were unrelated.  They did not even take place on the same day, yet they are inextricably linked in my mind.  Here’s why.

I am not a collector of things.  I do not have shelves full of tchotchkes or closets stuffed with shoes.  I do, however, collect wine.  I collect wine for the experience of drinking it, not of holding onto it (a skill at which I do not excel), and for me the quirkier the drinking experience, the more I am interested in having it.  Which is why I could not pass up the opportunity to taste Matthias Dostert’s Elbling.

Elbling is a white variety that grows primarily in the southern Mosel Valley in Germany (although it can also be found in Luxembourg) on the chalky, sandy soils that Riesling does not prefer.  At last count there were 583 hectares, or about 1,400 acres, of Elbling planted in Germany, making it number 23 on Germany’s depth chart, ranking behind Huxelrebe and a couple of spots ahead of Sauvignon Blanc.  Elbling’s low must-weights and high acidity make it the perfect base for the sparkling wine labeled as Mosel Sekt, for which it is most often used.  It is one of those grapes that Jancis Robinson doesn’t have much enthusiasm for, describing it as being “distinguished for its searing acidity” in the Oxford Companion to Wine.  And about that she’s right, of course.  The Dostert Elbling lit up my palate like the grand finale of a Fourth of July fireworks display, but there was something very pure about it too, like biting into a vibrant and perfectly ripe Frog Hollow peach.  There in the glass was the essence of summertime with all its sultry innocence.

Now, about the thunderstorm.  I live in San Francisco but, like many, I am not from here.  I was born and raised in the South, and as a consequence I miss summer thunderstorms, a rarity on the west coast.  Last Friday night, however, I was awakened mid-dream by the crack of a lightning strike.  It was a pleasant surprise, and I realize now, a metaphor for why I taste wine the way I do.  I am enamored of quirky varieties like Elbling because I crave the rush that comes from delving into unknown territory.  The road to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc. is long and well-marked.  Not so with Elbling and grapes of its ilk.  For me, experiencing the quirkier side of wine satisfies my curious nature (for a bit), and holds out the hope of rediscovering the awe I felt when I discovered wine in the first place — the flash of brilliance I never knew was coming, but came to love.

The storm was a loud one, a window-shaker, and wholly unexpected.  The best kind.

Why Are California Wines So Boring?

10 Sep


photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr

photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr


I don’t want to be a hater.  I don’t want to pile it on to the upmarket California winemakers who, by all accounts, are in world of hurt these days, but there’s a big problem in Cali wine that no one seems to be willing to talk about.  California wines are boring.

Yesterday I tasted two very different wines.  From two different countries.  In two different price brackets.  It’s probably against an unwritten rule to compare them to one another, but it’s also human nature to do so.  I did.

Wine #1 was a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc without claim to a fancy appellation — it was VdP Jardin — retailing at about $15.

Wine #2 was a highly allocated, newly annointed by Mr. Parker 98 point Rhône blend from California, retailing for about $70.

The difference between them?  The Cab Franc had a personality.  It was charming, quirky even, in its two-thirds-of-the-way-to-rosé clear magenta hue with violet, plum, and fresh earth on the nose; mouthwatering raspberry and paprika on the palate.  So much going on for so little money.  The Cali red?  Its minty, dried wood aroma (hello, new oak!) translated on the palate to a massive, polished-to-a-spit-shine vanilla and vaguely berryish flavor.  I’ve tasted wine like this a thousand times before.  Technically perfect, like an air-brushed model on the cover of a magazine, it offers no surprises, no intriguing conversation.  No soul, just glossy packaging.  And, it was hot.  Why, I wondered, would anyone ever buy this when they could have 4+ bottles of the (far more fun and thus IMO superior) Cab Franc?

I taste lots of wine every week and inevitably end up pitting the best and the worst against each other in my mind: the snore of a Sonoma Coast Chard ($40) vs. a gorgeous as all get-out Grüner ($18); yet another big, alcoholic, hardly identifiable as Pinot Russian River Pinot Noir ($50) vs. a surprisingly layered beauty of a Sicilian Frappato ($20).  Unfortunately, in my mental rankings the California contenders typically fall to the bottom of the heap, largely because of the price to quality ratio.  I simply don’t want to pay $40 or $50 for an OK-but-nothing-special bottle from CA when I know I can find several intriguing, even complex, wines under $20 elsewhere.

California is the reason I fell in love with wine in the first place, and yet I seem to be falling out of love with California wine.  It’s sad.

Are charming, exciting, well-priced Cali wines even out there anymore, or are they extinct?

Ms. Drinkwell’s Top 5 – California Wine Edition

1 Sep

i heart wineIn honor of California Wine Month, I’ve put together a short list of some of my favorites, recent and perennial:

Best Chardonnay with the Worst Name
2007 Wind Gap Chardonnay Brousseau Vineyard

There’s a nice story on the Wind Gap website about how the vineyards are planted along wind gaps and how the wind shapes the flavors of the wines, and I’m sure this is all true, but the name is just plain bad.  However, the wine is so good that I developed temporary aphasia upon tasting it.  So what’s it like?  Marilyn Monroe in a bikini –voluptuously built with each curve counterbalanced by acidity so racy it’s practically electric.  And, there’s so much minerality in each sip, it’s like there’s a quarry in the glass.  In my opinion, no Cali Chard has ever tasted as Chablisienne as this one while still managing to capture essence of opulent California style.  

Best Version of a Variety No American Can Pronounce 
2007 La Clarine Farm Mourvèdre Cedarville Vineyard

It’s awkward that I never know how to say the name of this grape correctly (moor – ved, or  moor – ved – druh?).  No matter, I’ll just call La Clarine’s version good stuff.  It reminds me of a solid French country wine — not too fancy, not too polished, not too expensive — and best of all, not too over the top.  The kind of wine you keep reaching for again and again with pleasure.  It’s a much leaner rendition than you might expect coming from this notoriously hearty, big boned variety, and that’s probably why I like it so well.  It checks all the right boxes: violets, leather, dusty blackberry, savory spice, but it’s not heavy handed.  Rather, it’s like the fresh faced girl next door — pretty in its youth without a trace of makeup.

Best New Zin that Could Give Ridge a Run for Its Money
2005 Hunnicutt Zinfandel Napa Valley, Chiles Valley District

I’ll admit to being biased against Napa Valley Zinfandel.  For me, it just doesn’t possess the nuance or subtelty that can be achieved with a well made version from Dry Creek or Russian River Valley.  So when I bounded into work on a recent day to be met by a rep with a lineup which included Hunnicutt’s Napa Valley Zin, I felt pretty confident that an underwhelming tasting was to follow.  Ah, hubris!  I was wrong, of course, which is the great thing about great wine.  It kicks your ass back into line  in the most delicious way, which is exactly what  Hunnicutt did for me with its rose petal, bing cherry, and pink peppercorn potion.  It’s delicate without sacrificing lush texture or lusty fruit.  Quite the impressive balancing act.

Best and Most Thoughtful California Wine Blog
Tom Wark’s Fermentation:  The Daily Wine Blog

OK, OK so Tom Wark doesn’t write exclusively about California wine, but he’s located in California and his “day job” as I understand it is in Public Relations where he is responsible for promoting many California wineries large and small. If you’re not reading Tom Wark’s blog, you should be. Why? In addition to being a dependable (he really does blog everyday!) and articulate voice, Mr. Wark is honest and self-reflective in his posts.  He’s continually striving for ways to connect wine to themes larger than himself, and he won’t sacrifice this aim to cover the hot new trend simply because it’s timely.  This blog — unlike so many others — isn’t gimmicky; it doesn’t exist to gossip or break news.  Rather, it’s a meditation which if you let it, just might teach you something about yourself.  Fermentation is exceptional because its author is at once true to his subject and to us.
I think I want to be Tom Wark when I grow up.

Best Crazy Genius California Winemaker/Marketer
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon

Clearly this is not breaking news.  Randall Grahm has been making and marketing wine since I was in grade school.  I will forget for a moment that the Bonny Doon website makes me a little queasy with all of its spinning, and that I once submitted my resume for an open position and never received a response.  Anyone who has the balls to sell off two of the most profitable divisions of his company in order to concentrate on producing bizarro biodynamic wines using grapes most California wine drinkers have never heard of (Erbaluce? Albariño? Nebbiolo? Dolcetto?) is impressive (and borderline insane) enough.  But, to sell those wines, lots of them, and make customers fall in love with them (and him) is unthinkable for anyone except Randall Grahm.  Combine with this a recent appearance on Oprah and a forthcoming book and there’s no single person out there who’s doing more to promote California wine than this guy.  Yeah, I know it’s been said before, but the truth is always worth restating.

Want to add to my list?  Bring it on in the comments!

Sterling’s Coupon Campaign

31 Aug

Sterling CouponIt’s officially California Wine Month Eve, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a coupon for Sterling Vintner’s Collection wine!  Yes, a hard copy, get-out-your-kitchen-shears-and-clip-it coupon for Sterling — $3.00 off the purchase of two 750 ml bottles — was in Sunday’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, sharing the same bifold as coupons for Seventh Generation diapers and Air Wick Scented Oils.  (No, I didn’t make that last part up.)

IMG_0867When was the last time I saw a wine coupon in the paper?  Maybe….never?  Liquor coupons, yes.  Particularly in the last six months or so, but not wine.  Not until now.  This discovery comes on the eve of California Wine Month and just a few days after Sterling’s parent company, Diageo, issued a statement saying 2010 will be a challenging year for business.  I don’t disagree with that, but will a $3.00 off coupon really help matters, or simply further erode the aspirational image of one of California’s most recognizable wine brands?

In Campania Where Sparkling Wine Grows on Trees

27 Aug


Vite Maritata

Vite Maritata


I have a thing for bizarre wines.  Especially if they’re white.  Doubly so if they’re sparkling.  Just so happens I came across such a fascinating find the other day, an Italian sparkler called Grotta del Sole Asprinio d’Aversa.  Admittedly, I had no idea what it was, but a little cursory research via the Oxford Companion to Wine (Many thanks, Jancis.) turned up two facts: 1) that Asprinio is a specialty of Campania; and 2) that it is likely identical to Greco di Tufo.  A little more digging on the internet and another fun fact emerged:  this particular variety grows on trees.  That’s right, the vines are actually intertwined with poplar trees in a traditional method called vite maritata, or married vine.  They can reach 30 or even 50 meters in height, meaning farmers with ladders custom-made for the purpose are required to harvest them.  So while I’m blogging, emailing, and Twittering away, a farmer in a little corner of Italy is climbing a narrow, handmade ladder to check on his Asprinio grapes.  Sigh.

Having found this bottle and done this little bit of research reminds me why I love wine.  Beacause it’s beautiful in its simplicity, and it connects us to humanity in a way Facebook never will.     

Would love to know if anyone has experience with other interesting traditional harvest techniques…

An Open Letter to Starbucks

25 Aug


Venti unsweet black iced tea - now a specialty beverage!

Venti unsweet black iced tea - now a specialty beverage!


Dear Starbucks,

I am not a coffee drinker, but I am a regular customer.  Like many of your regular customers, I have have a regular drink order.  My regular drink order just happens to be a Venti unsweet black iced tea, which now costs me 20 cents more per caffeinated cup.  I understand the business need to ajust pricing to keep pace with the economy.  I understand the strategy behind charging more for specialty beverages while dropping the price of the basic drinks.  I simply don’t understand how my Venti unsweet black iced tea fell into the “specialty beverage” category.  

I do not order iced tea lemonade, or Passion tea, or tea latté.  My drink requires no grinding, brewing, or decorating with accoutrements like steamed milk, or whipped cream, or caramel sauce as with coffee.  Nothing goes into the blender to be frappucinoed.  I frankly don’t care if anyone shakes my tea in the Starbucks Iced Tea Shaker, which let’s face it, is just a plastic cocktail shaker with a logo on it.  I don’t even ask for any sugar in my drink for god’s sake!  How much more stripped down, uncomplicated, and rudimentary must my order be before it qualifies as basic?  Does ice make it a premium drink, or am I bearing the brunt of your price increase simply because I’m not a coffee drinker?

Please explain, Starbucks, before I switch my four-times-a-week allegiance to Peet’s Summerhouse iced tea, which incidentally costs $2.05 for a large — 5 cents cheaper than the old price of my Venti at your place.

Yours Very Truly,
Ms. Drinkwell


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